Day in the Lab

XIX.2 March + April 2012
Page: 82
Digital Citation

Interactive Product Design Lab (IPDL) at Georgia Tech

Jim Budd

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How do you describe your lab to visitors? The Interactive Product Design Lab (IPDL) is a purpose-built lab designed to support both teaching and research by allowing students to investigate, explore, and experiment with an extensive array of new technologies. Central to this concept, the School of Industrial Design has placed a high priority on the need to foster and develop interdisciplinary, team-based collaboration with other educational and research units from across the campus, including the School of Interactive Computing, the School of Mechanical Engineering, the Graphics Visualization and Usability Lab (GVU), and the Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access (CATEA). The Interactive Product Design Lab was built in the summer of 2011 and opened in time for the 2011 fall semester.


The lab was partially funded by a competitive grant from the Institute Tech Fee Fund, generated by a tuition surcharge to support the acquisition of advanced technological resources for the benefits of students. Our lab is in fact part of a cluster of Invention Studios across campus—the brainchild of mechanical engineering professor Craig Forest, who has been working to provide technology clusters operated by the students for the students. Parallel labs across campus offer capabilities ranging from water-jet cutting and injection molding to wave soldering, laser cutting, and CNC machining. The goal is to provide a comprehensive, unified infrastructure that is readily available.

What is a unique feature of your lab? The lab was specifically designed to support team-based collaboration. It features six workstations designed to accommodate six teams of four or 12 teams of two. Each workstation is fully equipped for electronic design and fabrication, with two sets of dedicated power supplies, soldering stations, meters, and hand tools. The installation is designed around the award-winning Steelcase media:scape system, which serendipitously happened to closely match the design spec for the original lab concept.

The media:scape system provides videoconferencing and is capable of handling any resolution, from Skype to HD. Each workstation has been set up with two 32-inch monitors that can be used to support a shared videoconference for the entire class or independent video links from each team at each workstation. In a teaching scenario, the instructor can deliver video directly to each desktop from a laptop or from the high-resolution overhead camera on the instructor's station. Conversely, students can share work directly from their desktops via the webcams at their workstations. Each workstation has a resident computer equipped with basic instructional software, conferencing software, and a range of bookmarked Web-based resources. In addition, the media:scape system provides four ports at each workstation that allow any student to plug in his or her own laptop and share one or both of the 32-inch monitors.


We have already begun to use the lab's conferencing capabilities to link project teams to sponsor companies in other locations. This level of accessibility is encouraging more regular "in person" discussion and more regular project reviews that, all in all, lead to a more fluid level of collaboration.

How many people are in the lab, and what is the mix of backgrounds and roles? I suppose we have taken quite an unconventional approach to lab access and lab use. As opposed to considering the lab an exclusive space for a particular group or task, we have chosen a more inclusive, shared approach, leveraging the lab to foster an integrated view of research and exploration from the undergraduate level on up.

One of the first goals for building this lab was to bootstrap the skill and knowledge base of the industrial design students in the combined areas of sensors, electronics, and programming to enable them to effectively collaborate with computing and engineering students. A second goal was to attract faculty from other units across campus to begin using our lab to teach their classes, with the proviso that they would admit our students into their classes. This strategy has paid off. We will have at least three external initiatives led by faculty from other units leveraging our lab and involving our students—one, led by Ali Mazalek from the Graphics Visualization Lab, focuses on the relationship between cognition and physical interaction; a second, led by Jon Sanford, the director of CATEA, focuses on universal accessibility for voting machines; and a third, led by Thad Starner from the School of Interactive Computing and Clint Zeagler from Industrial Design, focuses on the Wearable Swatchbook project.


How would you briefly describe a day in the life of your lab? The lab can be a busy place...

Mornings are prime time for dedicated research initiatives. The lab has sufficient space to support several research teams working in parallel—and it seems our students typically aren't too active in the mornings—so this tends to be the quietest time in the lab for focused investigation. Mornings are also dedicated to maintenance, software updates, and installation, plus any special preparations for classes that might happen to be in session. The lab is equipped with six rolling toolboxes (one per workstation) that can be equipped with parts kits for special assignments.

The scenario changes drastically once we get past the noon hour. Afternoons are typically reserved for classes and studio support. Student lab assistants monitor the lab in the off-class afternoon hours to ensure access during the day. The evenings, on into the wee hours of the morning, are the prime working times for the students. We are building a team of student volunteers who are knowledgeable in electronics and who have supervisory authority to staff the lab in the off-hours to assist their colleagues, in exchange for near-unlimited access to the facilities. So far, that approach is working well.

What is one feature of your lab you would not do without? One of the primary strengths of designers is their ability to communicate visually, and this lab is all about sharing ideas. Two full walls of the lab are covered with pin-up boards, each approximately 25 feet long and seven feet high. The pin-up space facilitates interaction and discussion of everything from ideas to specific details of how a device might work, how it might be manufactured, and how it should look.


We are particularly interested in encouraging everyone to pin up work to bring the focus of the lab back to the ideas—it's not just about the technology. Perhaps one the most important aspects of the design process is developing the ability to communicate an idea: building the storyboard for the concept, modeling and prototyping a proof of concept, and then testing to discover how well it really works and how it might be improved—and then being able to use your visual skills to effectively communicate the value of the concept. The pin-up space underscores this objective.

What is one feature of your lab that you want and don't have? We could always do more with more space. The original design concept for the lab was to build an integrated workshop/lab that included additional space for prototyping, plus layout and sewing facilities to support initiatives in wearable technologies and a video-editing facility to support the importance of time-based documentation for both research and evaluation of product tests. We did manage to incorporate some limited layout space and machining capabilities into the lab, including a scroll saw, a small drill press, and a narrow belt sander, all connected to a dust-extraction system installed on a multipurpose workbench across the back of the lab. The other major shortfall is the limited availability of storage space.

How would you describe how people interact in your lab? The goal was to create a highly visible dynamic space to foster the interaction of students and faculty in support of both learning and research. So far this is all working well, and the lab has begun to draw interest from across the campus.

What is the one thing you see as most important about what you do here? The addition of this lab has begun to change the perception of the role of industrial design at Georgia Tech. The work we are fostering in the lab has created opportunities to work collaboratively with other faculty and students from the key technical units across the campus in the areas of health and well-being, interactive computing, and engineering. And as a result, we're also beginning to see a lot more interest from our industry partners.

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